In October 1981, President Ronald Reagan announced he was going through with an agreement, initially negotiated during the Carter administration, to sell Saudi Arabia billions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated weaponry, including five Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS): airplanes whose advanced radar could detect otherwise undetectable incoming aircraft. Israeli officials, Prime Minister Menachem Begin included, were concerned that these systems would give Riyadh a technological edge over the IDF. Accordingly, the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) embarked on one of its most ambitious lobbying efforts ever to convince Congress not to approve the deal. Arnon Gutfeld offers a detailed history of the ensuing dispute and explains its relevance in light of the more recent controversy concerning Benjamin Netanyahu’s public opposition to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran:
[Both the AWACS episode and the dispute over the Iran deal] underscore the constraints on the maneuverability of a small state in its bilateral relationship with a great power. For the great power, the relationship with the small state, however important it may at times be, is but one on a wide spectrum of interactions. For the latter it is of crucial, at times even existential, importance. This is all the more pertinent to Israel’s relationship with the U.S., its staunchest, indeed its only, great-power ally. . . .
In American political culture, failure is considered an unforgivable sin. This means Israel and its local supporters must carefully choose the battles they pick with an incumbent president as every failure is bound to undermine the omnipotent image of the pro-Israel lobby and diminish its ability to win future battles. In this respect, the AWACS deal seemed a battle worth fighting, given its seemingly high chance of winning in view of the near-universal Jewish-American opposition to the sale; strong congressional opposition; and a friendlier president who could be expected to show greater understanding of Israel’s needs and vulnerabilities.
[By contrast], the Iran nuclear deal involved a potentially existential threat to Israel that overshadowed most political/foreign policy calculations and necessitated a [riskier] strategy. . . . While the Iran deal cast a shadow on Benjamin Netanyahu’s already turbulent relationship with President Obama and put “daylight” between the Israeli government and the Democrats (to use Obama’s term), it did not undermine the U.S.-Israel “special relationship” to the extent forecast by doom-mongers, with Netanyahu playing an important role in President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal and to re-impose sanctions on Tehran. Whether or not this achievement will prove either lasting or beneficial over the long term remains to be seen.